This battle for Kashmir was nothing like any other battle. It had confused Subedar Rub Nawaz so much that he couldn’t think clearly. He felt as though he had turned into a rifle, but one whose trigger was jammed.
He had fought on many fronts in the last Great War and knew how to kill and be killed. All the high- and low-ranking officers regarded him with admiration and respected his wits, daring and pluck. The platoon commanders always assigned him the most hazardous duty and he never failed to live up to their expectations.
But this battle...it was so strange. He had joined it with great fervour and passion, obsessed with the single thought – annihilate the enemy at any cost. But when he confronted the enemy, he saw familiar faces. Some had once been his friends, his bosom buddies in fact. They had fought alongside him against the enemies of the Allied forces, but now they seemed to have become sworn enemies hell-bent on killing him.
Sometimes it all seemed like images in a dream: the declaration of the last Great War, enlistment, the usual physical tests, target practice, being packed off to the front and moved from one theatre of war to another, and, finally, the war’s end. And close upon its heels the creation of Pakistan, followed immediately by the Kashmir war – so many events occurring in dizzying succession. Could it be that all this was done to confound people, to prevent them from taking the time to grasp it all? Why else would all these momentous events occur so rapidly that it made your head spin?
Subedar Rub Nawaz understood one thing: They were fighting to win Kashmir. Why did they need to win Kashmir? Its annexation was vital for the survival of Pakistan. But as he took aim to shoot and a familiar face appeared on the opposite side, he forgot for a moment why they were fighting, why he had lifted his gun and aimed.
At such times he had to remind himself repeatedly that he was no longer fighting for the wages, a parcel of land or medals, but for his country. But this was his country before too, wasn’t it? He belonged to this same region that had now been included in Pakistan. Now he had to fight the very person who, not long ago, had been his countryman – why even his next-door neighbour, and their two families had bonded for generations.
All of a sudden that man’s country had become an alien piece of land where he had never set foot before, whose water he had never tasted. He had been given a gun and ordered, “Go fight for this land where you still haven’t set up your home, acquired a taste for its water or gotten used to the feel of its air. Go fight Pakistan – where you’ve lived so many years of your life.”
Rub Nawaz’s thoughts drifted off to the Muslim soldiers who had been forced to abandon their homes and property to come here. Whatever they owned had been taken away. And what had they found here? Nothing, except guns, of the same weight and calibre, even the same make.
Whereas before they had fought together against a common enemy, whom they had merely imagined to be their enemy for the sake of their stomachs and rewards and recognition, now they had themselves split into two groups. They were no longer Indian soldiers, but Indian and Pakistani soldiers. The thought that there were still Muslim soldiers back in India flummoxed his mind, and when he thought about Kashmir his mind became even more muddled. It just refused to think further.
Were Pakistanis fighting for Kashmir or for Kashmiri Muslims? If the latter, why not also fight for the Muslims of Hyderabad and Junagarh? And if this was purely a war for Islam, why weren’t other Muslim countries fighting alongside of them?
After thinking long and hard, Rub Nawaz concluded that these matters were far too subtle for the intelligence of an ordinary soldier, who needed to be a little thick in the head if he wanted to be a good soldier. It was best not to think about them. There were times, though, when his disposition got the better of him and he did pursue these thoughts furtively only to have a hearty laugh about his lapse.
The battle for control of the road that led from Muzaffarabad to Kiran had been raging along the banks of the Kishan Ganga for some time. It was a strange battle. At night, rather than the sound of bullets, a crescendo of abuses, each one smuttier than the last, rose from the neighbouring hills.
One evening, as Subedar Rub Nawaz was getting his platoon ready for a surprise assault, a barrage of obscenities shot up from a trench below their position. Initially he freaked out. It seemed as if a gang of afreets were jitterbugging and laughing raucously. “Pig’s ass,” he muttered. “What the hell’s going on?”
One member of his platoon responded with a filthy abuse and said to Rub Nawaz, “Subedar Sahib, the motherfuckers are swearing at us.”
At first, when he heard the provocative insults, Rub Nawaz thought of throwing himself headlong into the fray, but decided to hold back. His men couldn’t stay quiet for very long. Soon they had had enough and began returning the enemy’s noxious abuse with their own, equally hideous, invectives at the top of their lungs. It was a peculiar battle for Subedar Rub Nawaz. He tried a few times to restrain his men, but the profanities got so vicious it wasn’t possible to hold back.
Naturally the enemy couldn’t be seen at night, but it also couldn’t be spotted in daylight because of the cover of thick vegetation. Only their foul abuse rose from the foothills, crashed against the rocks and melted into thin air. Rub Nawaz felt that his men’s counter-abuses probably weren’t making it all the way down the valley but were simply evaporating overhead. This rattled his nerves and in a huff he ordered them to attack.
He noticed something rather peculiar about the hills. Some were densely covered with trees and vegetation on the upward slope and entirely barren on the downward, while others were the reverse, with tall, sturdy pines on the downward side. The needles on these pines were so damp that the boots of the soldiers lost all traction so his men kept slipping again and again.
On the hill occupied by the Subedar’s contingent, the slope provided no cover as it was completely without trees or brush. It was obvious the attack would be quite hazardous, but his men, chomping at the bit to get even for the blistering obscenities hurled at them, were more than willing to go for it anyway. As it turned out, they were successful. Their losses included two men dead and four wounded. The enemy lost three men and the rest took to their heels, leaving their provisions behind.
The Subedar and his men were terribly disappointed that they were unable to capture even a single enemy soldier alive whom they would have treated to their choicest profanities for as long as they liked. However, they did succeed in capturing a major enemy fortification. Rub Nawaz immediately relayed the outcome of the attack to his platoon commander, Major Aslam, over the wireless and received his commendation.
Almost every hill had a pond at the top, including the one they had captured. This one was quite a bit larger than the others and had crystal clear water. Everyone took a dip despite the frigid weather. Their teeth chattered, but they didn’t care. They were still splashing when the sound of a gunshot rang through the valley.
They all immediately dropped flat on the ground, completely naked. A little while later Subedar Rub Nawaz scanned the downward slope with his binoculars, but failed to spot the enemy hideout. As he was looking, another gunshot rang out. He saw smoke rising from a relatively low hill just beyond the bottom of the slope. Without delay he ordered his troops to open fire. A volley of bullets rained down and was returned from the other side.
Subedar Rub Nawaz tried to study the enemy position through his binoculars. Most likely they were huddled behind a pile of large stones but this provided scanty cover. He was sure they couldn’t remain there much longer. The second any of them decided to make a move, they would come within range of his men’s guns.
Firing continued for a while. Eventually he ordered his men to save their ammunition and shoot only when the enemy made a move and was exposed. Just then he noticed his naked body and muttered under his breath, “Goddamn it...Without clothes a man looks like an animal!”
Now and then the enemy fired a random bullet that was returned just as sporadically from this side. This silly game continued for two whole days. The weather had suddenly turned brutally cold, so cold that it froze your blood even in the daytime. Subedar Rub Nawaz got round after round of tea going to stay warm. The kettle was kept at a boil all the time, but they never took their eyes off the enemy. When one soldier had to move, another took the binoculars and kept watch.
A bone-piercing wind was gusting. When the soldier on lookout said there was some surreptitious movement behind the stone fortification, Subedar Rub Nawaz took the binoculars himself and peered through them. He didn’t detect any movement. Suddenly a call tore through the air, its echo ricocheting for a long time against the rocks in the clump of neighbouring hills. He couldn’t make out what it was saying.
He fired a shot in exchange. Once the echo of his fire had died out, the same voice
rose again. Clearly, it was calling him. “You pig’s ass!” he shouted back. “What do you want?”
“Don’t call me bad names, brother,” the enemy shouted. Apparently he wasn’t too far away.
Rub Nawaz looked at his men and repeated “brother...’ just as surprised as he was pissed off. Then he cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled, “No brothers here, only your mottha’s, fuckers.”
“Rub Nawaz,” a wounded voice rose quickly from the other side. Rub Nawaz trembled.
The pained voice kept crashing against the hills, repeating ‘Rub Nawaz...Rub Nawaz” like a refrain, each with a different cadence, before it evaporated into the freezing air.
Rub Nawaz came around after a long time. “Who might that be?” he said to himself, and then muttered, “Pig’s ass!”
He knew that the bulk of the Tetwal front was made up of troops from the old 6/9 Regiment; he had been one of them too. But the voice – whom did it belong to? Many people had been his close friends, and there were others he bore enmity towards on account of some personal matters, but who was this person who had taken his abuse to heart and was calling out loudly to him?
He brought the binoculars to his eyes and peered through them again. He couldn’t see anyone in the sparse, swaying vegetation on the hill. He cupped his hands around his mouth again and blared, “Who is it? This is Rub Nawaz...Rub Nawaz.”
And this “Rub Nawaz’” also kept bouncing off the rocks. “Pig’s ass!” he muttered again.
Instantly a voice boomed, “It’s me...it’s Ram Singh.”
Rub Nawaz jumped, as if he wanted to leap over to the other side right away. “Ram Singh,” he first said to himself, and then he screamed at the top of his voice, “Ram Singha! Hey you, Ram Singh...Pig’s ass!”
Before “pig’s ass” had time to crash against the hills and disappear altogether, Ram Singh’s cracking voice shot up, “You, potter’s ass!”
Rub Nawaz fumed. With commanding presence he looked at his troops and muttered, “He’s talking shit, pig’s ass.” And then he retorted to Ram Singh, “Oaye, Baba Tal ke karah parshad – Oaye, khinzeer ke jhatke!”
Ram Singh started to laugh uncontrollably, so did Rub Nawaz. The hills tossed their exchange playfully back and forth. Subedar Rub Nawaz’s men were dead silent.
When the hysterical bout of laughter subsided, Ram Singh’s voice rose. “Look, yaar, we’d like to drink some tea.”
“So drink. Have fun.”
“How can we have fun?” Ram Singh shouted. “All our stuff is over there.”
“Over where?” Rub Nawaz asked.
“Over there, where your bullets can make us into mincemeat.”
Rub Nawaz laughed. “So what do you want, pig’s ass?”
“Just let us retrieve it.”
“All right, go get it.” Rub Nawaz looked at his men.
Ram Singh’s anxious voice came back, “You’ll fire on us, potter’s ass.”
An irritated Rub Nawaz shot back, “Damn you, you lousy turtle, stop raving!”
Ram Singh let out a big laugh. “Swear that you won’t fire.”
“Swear by what?”
“By anyone, doesn’t matter.”
“Okay, send someone out to grab your stuff,” Rub Nawaz said grinning.
Silence pervaded the atmosphere for a few moments. Rub Nawaz’s man, who had the binoculars trained on the enemy, gave him a look and was about to fire when Rub Nawaz stopped him emphatically, “No! Don’t!”
He snatched the binoculars from the man’s hand and squinted into it. He saw a man slithering out from behind the pile of stones and advancing gingerly on tiptoe. He walked like this for some distance and then suddenly took off at a gallop, disappearing quickly into the bushes.
A couple of minutes later he emerged carrying some stuff in his hands. He stopped for a moment before bolting towards the makeshift fortification and slipping into the precarious safety of that buffer. The second he disappeared from sight Rub Nawaz pulled the trigger of his gun. His loud laughter and the bullet’s ping rose almost simultaneously, reverberating in the valley for a while, followed by Ram Singh’s “Thank you!”
“Don’t mention it,” Rub Nawaz acknowledged. Then, looking at his men, he said, “What do you say, shall we have a round?”
A few rounds of gunfire were exchanged playfully and then a hush fell over the landscape for some time. Rub Nawaz looked through the binoculars again and spotted a cloud of smoke curling up from the hill. “So have you fixed your tea, Ram Singha?” he shouted.
“Not yet, potter’s ass,” came the answer.
Rub Nawaz was a potter by caste. His blood boiled whenever anyone even vaguely hinted at his origins. Only with Ram Singh it was different. Rub Nawaz didn’t let it get on his nerves with him because Ram Singh was a special chum of his. They had grown up in the same village and were born only a few days apart.
Not just their fathers, even their grandfathers had enjoyed close, friendly ties. Rub Nawaz and Ram Singh had gone to the same primary school and enlisted in the army on the same day. In the last Great War they had fought side by side on several fronts.
Feeling embarrassed before his men Rub Nawaz mumbled, “Pig’s ass, he never gives it up.” And then he hollered at Ram Singh, “Don’t go shooting off your mouth, you lice-infested donkey.”
Ram Singh’s loud laugh shot through the air. Rub Nawaz had his gun aimed in the direction of the enemy and let it go off playfully. A scream tore through the air. He quickly peered into the binoculars and saw a man rise and hobble out from behind the stone bulwark, doubled over. Holding his stomach, the man crumbled to the ground after going a short distance. It was Ram Singh.
“Ram Singh!” Rub Nawaz screamed and jumped to his feet. Immediately, three or four shots were fired from the other side. One bullet brushed past his right arm. He quickly threw himself on the ground face down. His men started firing back but failed to hit the enemy, so he ordered them to attack. Three lost their lives within seconds but the rest kept advancing and, with great difficulty, finally managed to capture the other hill.
Ram Singh was lying on the rocky ground in a pool of blood, groaning. He had been hit in the stomach. A gleam appeared in his eyes when he saw Rub Nawaz. Smiling he said, “You potter’s ass, you did this...Whatever for?”
Rub Nawaz felt as if he was the one who had been shot in the stomach and was now writhing in agony. He smiled, bent over Ram Singh and started to unfasten his belt. “Pig’s ass, who asked you to stand up?”
As his belt was loosened, Ram Singh cried out from the intensity of the pain. Rub Nawaz examined the wound. It was very nasty. Ram Singh pressed Rub Nawaz’s hand and mumbled in a feeble voice, “I only got up to show myself to you and you fired, you son of a gun.”
“I fired just for the heck of it. I swear to God, the One and Only One,” Rub Nawaz said in a choking voice. “I knew you, always an ass, were getting up...I’m so sorry.”
Ram Singh had lost a lot of blood. It had taken a few hours for Rub Nawaz and his men to get over here, long enough for Ram Singh to lose a whole bucket’s worth of blood. Rub Nawaz was amazed that Ram Singh was still alive. He didn’t expect him to last long.
Moving him was out of the question. He got on the wireless and requested his platoon commander to dispatch a medic immediately; his friend Ram Singh had been wounded badly.
Rub Nawaz knew it would be impossible for the medic to arrive in time and that it was a matter of minutes before Ram Singh’s life ebbed away. After sending the message he smiled and said to Ram Singh, “The medic is on his way. Don’t worry.”
In a sinking voice, Ram Singh said pensively, “Why would I worry...But tell me, how many of my men have you killed.”
“And yours?” Ram Singh inquired still more feebly.
“Six,” Rub Nawaz lied, giving his men a meaningful look.
“Six...six,’ Ram Singh counted in his heart. “My men lost their spirit when I was wounded. But I told them to fight on, risking their lives...Six, yes.’ Then his mind drifted off into a hazy past. “Rub Nawaz...you remember those days, don’t you?”
And he went down memory lane, talking about their childhood, their village, the stories of their schooldays and of their time in the 6/9 Jat Regiment, the jokes about their commanding officers and their affairs with strange women in foreign lands. Somewhere along the way he remembered something interesting and let out a big laugh, which sent a wave of excruciating pain through his body, but he paid no attention to it and said, still laughing, “You, pig’s balls, you remember that madam?”
“The one in Italy. We used to call her...What was it now? Some woman she was, a real man-eater...’
Rub Nawaz remembered her right away. “Yes, yes, that...Madame Moneyto Finito, ‘no money, no action’. But now and then she let you have a ride for less, that daughter of Mussolini.”
Ram Singh laughed loudly, some clotted blood gushing from his wound as a result. Rub Nawaz’s makeshift bandage had slipped off. He secured it in place and admonished Ram Singh, “Don’t talk.”
Ram Singh was running a high fever and this made his brain work faster. Although he had no strength left, he was babbling on and on, stopping briefly now and then as if to check how much petrol was still left in his tank. Soon afterward he lapsed into a delirium punctuated by moments of perfect lucidity.
During one lucid moment, he asked Rub Nawaz, “Yaar, tell me honestly, do you people really want Kashmir?”
Rub Nawaz replied in all earnestness, “Yes, Ram Singha, we do.”
“No, no, I can’t believe it. You’ve been taken for a ride.”
“No, it’s you who’s been taken for a ride,” Rub Nawaz said emphatically to convince him. “I swear by Panchtan Pak.”
“No, yaar, don’t swear.” Ram Singh grabbed his hand as he said, “Maybe you’re right.” But it was evident from his tone that he didn’t believe Rub Nawaz.
Major Aslam, the platoon commander, arrived with some of his soldiers a little before sundown, but there was no medic. Floating between semi-consciousness and the throes of death, Ram Singh was babbling about something, but his voice was so weak and broken that it was difficult to make out his words.
Major Aslam had also been part of the 6/9 Jat Regiment and knew Ram Singh quite well. He had Rub Nawaz tell him the details about what had transpired and then he called out, “Ram Singh! Ram Singh!”
Ram Singh opened his eyes and came to attention still lying on the ground. He raised his arm with great difficulty and saluted. For a moment he looked at the major closely and then his rigid arm fell limply to his side. He started to murmur in visible irritation, “O Ram Singha, you pig’s balls, you forgot this is a war...a war...”
He couldn’t finish. His slowly closing eyes looked at Rub Nawaz with bewilderment and then he turned cold.
Excerpted with permission from My Name Is Radha: The Essential Manto, Saadat Hasan Manto, translated from the Urdu by Muhammad Umar Memon, Penguin Books.